A Further Examination: Sue Klebold’s case study of her son, Dylan Klebold (2024)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Sue Klebold’s memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, about her experience as the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School shooters. While I was able to share the manner by which she communicated her ideas and insights, I wasn’t able to actually share those insights and ideas. Her recounting of the details of Dylan’s life, combined with what we learned about school shooters in general, paints a picture of how this particular child ended up committing one of the most infamous massacres in American history.

I’m going to start by reviewing what Bartol & Bartol (2017) have to say about school shooters (and shootings) as a group, though they also state there is no single school shooter profile. In general: School shootings happen most at high schools, with a student at the school acting alone as the shooter. The perpetrator often has faced peer or social rejection, endured bullying, has anger about the bullying, and lacks the social or coping skills to deal with these issues. They may show cruelty to animals, or alternatively a high degree of affection or attachment to animals. They often have an interest in guns and weapons, with easy access to firearms, and have often repeatedly made clear their violent intentions to others (usually peers). Attacks seem planned in advance, with the shooter expecting to be killed or planning to commit suicide in conjunction with the attack. (p. 311-312) Synthesizing the many factors, it’s argued that most school shooters have a history of social rejection, along with either psychological problems, an interest in weapons, and/or a fascination with death (p. 314). School shooters often show little attachment to their school. There are also certain traits that lead to a school itself being more or less at risk for a shooting event: an inflexible culture, inequitable discipline, tolerance for disrespectful behavior, and a code of silence (p. 315). With these many, many factors in mind, I turn to A Mother’s Reckoning.

Sue (as both she and her son share the same surname, I’m going to refer to them by their first names for the sake of clarity) begins by emphasizing that she and her husband, Tom, truly had no idea what Dylan was planning. From many angles, Dylan was the average kid any parent would want. He was kind, gentle, smart, and happy. He “was easy to raise, a pleasure to be with, a child who had always made us proud” (Klebold, 2016, p. 61). He was fiercely independent, insisting his mother teach him how to bathe himself at the age of 5 or 6, and how to do his own laundry at age 10. His negative traits weren’t out of the ordinary either, really: he was very sensitive to embarrassment, which sometimes led to anger; and he was perhaps a little too independent, where he wouldn’t ask for help even if he needed it – like when he had to take a break from baseball after pains he never mentioned became so bad they caused his arm real damage. He felt a need to be in control.

His parents raised their two boys as many others did, following “that close-knit, suburban family model” (p. 62). Sue acknowledges that before Columbine, she would have reacted to news of some horrific act by wondering what that person’s parents must have been like to allow someone to turn out like that. But she came to realize the truth was far more troubling. Dylan’s parents were “hands-on parents who limited the intake of television and sugary cereals. We monitored what movies our boys could see, and put them to bed with stories and prayers and hugs” (p. 61). They made sure to know who their kids were spending time with, and made sure they knew and felt that they were loved. In a video-diary-style recording, Dylan stated his parents had been good to him. Yet, despite a happy upbringing, Dylan still did what he did.

As Dylan entered adolescence, he became a bit more complicated. He still was the boy his parents joked seemed to be “on autopilot” (p. 65), but Sue notes that this may have been particularly dangerous in his case. For happy, easy-to-raise, and successful kids like him, it was easy “to fly under their parents’ radar precisely because they were the shiny pennies, hiding the terrible pain they were in from their parents as capably as they did everything else” (p. 65). I must say, that rings true to me – I’d personally say it was because I was so self-sufficient and trustworthy as a child that my parents had no idea when I was going through (relative) difficulty in adolescence.

As a teen, Dylan’s aversion to embarrassment became more severe, his self-consciousness more pointed. His grades fell to average. Even still, he seemed happy and had a handful of close friends. Sue would later find out through his journals though that by sophom*ore year he was battling depression and suicidal thoughts. He had friends, but felt as if he were a burden; he wanted love, but the girl he was interested in didn’t know he existed. Though posthumous diagnosis isn’t possible, “that Dylan was seriously depressed is not up for debate” (p. 160), and his behaviors might have also fit the criteria for other diagnoses such as avoidant personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder, and/or borderline personality disorder. While in class we have made abundantly clear that most people with mental health issues are non-violent, Dylan’s depression and suicidality fits the school shooter pattern.

His parents didn’t understand the full extent of it, but high school wasn’t turning out to be a kind place for him. He started getting in trouble, and complained of how certain groups of kids were ruthless bullies, yet the school did nothing to stop them. One particular incident was uncovered where Dylan and Eric (the other shooter) were surrounded by a group, pushed around, called slurs, and had ketchup sprayed on them. Teachers did nothing. Sue suggests that for someone as sensitive to humiliation and loss of control as Dylan, these types of events may have made a big influence on him, and created a bond between the boys. Not only had Dylan experienced bullying in school, his school fit some of the factors that meant it was most at risk for a shooting by ignoring certain behaviors and otherwise unevenly enforcing the rules. Sue received a number of letters from people who’d gone to Columbine who were more surprised that a shooting hadn’t happened sooner than that one had happened at all.

By his junior and senior years, Dylan’s parents knew something was wrong. Dylan was behaving differently, getting in more trouble, not always acting like himself. He became more paranoid, forcing them all to flee a McDonald’s because he believed a group of teens on the other side of the store were laughing at him. (They weren’t.) But Sue and her husband didn’t know what the signs they were seeing meant. Sue “had no idea it was a life-and-death situation. I was just worried Dylan was unhappy” (p. 227). Indeed, up until he died, he had been going to school, working a part-time job, hanging out with his friends, planning for college – all behaviors of a normal teenager. Just three days before the shooting, he went to prom with a friend. Talking about the home video they took of that day, “It’s absolutely stunning how normal Dylan seems” (p. 235). These things outweighed their concerns about him. They’d never seen his rage, nor ever felt scared of him.

Looking back on the textbook’s suggested traits of school shooters, we’ve already seen above how Dylan does actually map onto many of them. Sue provides details that help us address some of the other considerations as well. Guns and weapons? Sue and her husband were vehemently opposed, but Dylan still asked for a gun for Christmas his final year. (They said no.) Making intentions known ahead of time? Dylan wrote an essay about a school shooting that disturbed his teacher enough that it was referred to the school counselor. It wasn’t deemed something that needed further attention. Planning? It was obvious that the attack had been in the works for a long time, and the plan carefully thought out. Dylan was also drinking at the end of his life, likely complicating his mental health issues, though had once said that marijuana was a waste of time and so perhaps wasn’t involved in drugs. While I’d argue that violent media doesn’t cause people to act violently if they’re not otherwise inclined, it seems Dylan was vulnerable to the violent games and movies he consumed outside the home. His parents didn’t yet know to monitor his internet usage. The attack on Columbine is almost a prototypical school shooting, but one way in which it stands out is that it was committed by two people together.

Outside Dylan’s journals, most of the information Sue got about Dylan’s frame of mind for the shootings came from a series of videotapes he and Eric had secretly made together. In them, it’s obvious to see how his anger and rage turned from being directed toward himself to directed toward others. In this case, the other shooter played a pivotal role in stoking Dylan’s rage and allowing him to break out of his own passivity and actually take steps toward the suicide he craved. Unfortunately, Eric was able to channel Dylan’s experiences and psychology into a violent act that would take not only his own life, but the lives of many others.

As we ourselves have often concluded in class, it seems Sue also came to the understanding that the massacre was the culmination of a number of different factors for Dylan, none of which on their own would have created such an act. As she says, “The rest of the world could explain away what he had done: either he was born evil – a bad seed – or he’d been raised without moral guidance. I knew it wasn’t nearly so simple” (p. 146). By the time of the shooting, facing his intense feelings of alienation, she says his journals show the only emotions Dylan could connect to were anger and hopelessness. But she focuses greatly on the lead-up to that day, hoping to shed light on what happened to her son in order to help someone else see signs in their own child while they still have a chance to intervene. As I often do, I’ll leave the author the last word on why understanding the process her son went through is important:

Dylan was vulnerable in many ways – unquestionably emotionally immature, depressed, possibly suffering from a more serious mood or personality disorder. Tom and I failed to recognize these conditions and to curtail the influences – violent entertainment, his friendship with Eric – that exacerbated them. Asking “how” instead of “why” allows us to frame the descent into self-destructive behavior as the process that it is. […] Asking “why” only makes us feel hopeless. Asking “how” points the way forward, and shows us what we must do. (p. 277)


Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2017). Criminal behavior: a psychological approach. Boston: Pearson.

Klebold, S. (2016). A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. New York: Crown.

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  1. Hi Alison,
    I think you did an excellent job with this blog post. It was very easy to read despite being a difficult topic. I think it is really interesting to think about the many things that lead someone to commit a school shooting. I recently watched the documentary “Raising Adam Lanza,” and, though it wasn’t as detailed, there were some interesting overlaps between Adam and Dylan. Adam killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary. Both Adam and Dylan seemed to have good relationships with their moms (though Adam actually ended up killing his mother the day of the shooting), both struggled in school (Adam actually switched schools a few times. His mom was trying to find the best fit for him, but I suspect it ended up being more difficult for him), and both enjoyed violent video games. Of course there is no ‘formula’ for determining whether someone will turn out to be a school shooter, but I definitely agree with the sentiment that it is important to look at how these things happen. Great job!

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